Home / News / World /  Ukraine war: Russian prowess in question with military bogged down in Ukraine

The Russian army’s unexpected struggles in Ukraine are prompting calls for a fresh look at widely shared assumptions about the effectiveness of President Vladimir Putin’s military machine.

Putin spent well over a decade modernizing a conscript-based military that proved wanting in Chechnya during the 1990s, and Georgia in 2008. Its first test in a large-scale conflict since the end of the Cold War has raised questions about what that boom in spending achieved.

Russian forces have been bogged down for weeks in parts of Ukraine and have failed to take control of key cities. While it is far too early and data is too sparse to draw conclusions, that’s raising many questions, including over the high end equipment it has not yet deployed in Ukraine. 

It’s still puzzling many defense watchers as to why Russia has used its air power only sparingly, allowing Ukraine’s air defenses to survive and combat aircraft to continue flying. It appears to have held back the precision guided armaments that Russian attack aircraft such as the SU-34 were designed to carry, on electronic warfare measures to block Ukrainian communications, and cyber warfare.

More fundamental, are signs of poor morale and organization among troops, according to Henry Boyd, a defense analyst focused on the Russian military at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

“There are at least some areas that give serious cause for a recalibration of assumptions about Russian capabilities," said Boyd. “The operational and training issues are longer term. If they are having the same problems as 14 years ago, and they have not been able to make any real improvement, then there’s reason to suspect this is something they cannot do within the current political system." 

None of this undermines the fact that Russia has vastly superior fire power, including the ability to cause destruction and mass casualties. On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Twitter that a Russian air strike hit a maternity hospital in the besieged eastern city of Mariupol, ending an evacuation cease-fire there. Images of a large crater next to the building circulated on social media. 

Russian ground forces continue to bombard other cities including Kyiv and Kharkiv. But the last few days have seen little movement beyond attempts to consolidate supply lines toward the capital, while troops from Crimea have moved north toward the city of Zaporizhzhia, according to a situational report from the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based non-profit.

The failure to follow up on initial cruise and ballistic missile strikes with air strikes to eliminate Ukraine’s air defenses and air force in the first two days of the the invasion has mystified some defense strategists. It also cost Russian ground forces dearly in terms of lives lost. 

Whether this was due to problems with inter-service coordination, because planes and missiles are being conserved for fear of an expanded conflict with NATO, or because Russian pilots simply aren’t trained to fly complex ground attack missions, has important -– and very different -– implications for the course of the war in Ukraine and beyond.

The pace of Russian air attacks picked up between days six and eight of the war, but so too the number of planes Ukraine’s military claimed to have shot down, according to Justin Bronk, an air power research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Since then there have been more and larger sorties from air fields in Belarus, but flown in the semi-dark hours of the morning and night, he added.

Open source photographs have shown unguided -- so called dumb bombs -- on board some aircraft. That would be unusual for the U.S. air force or a European air force, which by now use almost exclusively guided munitions, but not for Russia. About 90% of the bombs Russian aircraft dropped in Syria were unguided, Bronk said.

But hitting a target with a dumb bomb requires coming in low, exposing aircraft to threats from shoulder held anti-aircraft missiles such as the U.S.-made Stinger. The larger sorties may be evidence of the complex missions being flown, or simply of a higher volume of runs being made at dawn and dusk to avoid getting shot down by Stingers, which rely on human eyesight, said Bronk. 

“If it does become clear they were unable to mount large asset, complex operations," said Bronk, “then it would certainly make the Russian air force a lot less threatening than its relatively modern, high impact aircraft would suggest."

The sense among U.S. officials, too, is that while Russia’s military largely has control of the airspace, which is limiting Ukrainian sorties, it has been less dominant than expected. 

A concern among U.S. officials is that Russia now turns to tactics such as carpet bombing from the air –- a function for dumb bombs. 

On Monday night, Ukraine’s state emergency service said 21 civilians, including two children, had been killed when a bomb hit an apartment block in Sumy, in northern Ukraine. It provided video footage showing bodies being dragged from the rubble. In was not possible to confirm the type of munitions used. Russia says it is only targeting military installations.

There have been surprises in the cyber warfare sphere, too, with few reports of activity since some initial denial of service attacks on Ukrainian government websites around the invasion’s launch, on Feb. 24.

“It is a bit surprising that we have seen no reports from intelligence agencies or firms like Microsoft of any significant attacks on Ukrainian targets," said Greg Austin, the IISS’s senior fellow for cyber, space and future conflict. “You have Russian forces bearing down on power stations in Ukraine, which should be among the easiest targets for a cyber campaign."

In 2015, a cyber attack later attributed to Russia shut down part of the Ukrainian power grid.

Although not all electronic warfare efforts would be visible to the public, Austin said he was also puzzled by the apparent lack of jamming by Russia, given the decision to strike Kyiv’s television tower and what that said about Moscow’s aim to sever Zelenskiy’s communications with Ukrainians.

Again, it is too soon draw conclusions, Austin said, as Russia may want to keep networks running so it can potentially use them to shower Ukrainians with disinformation and so sap their will to fight. 

“Almost everyone got it wrong" in predicting how the campaign would unfold if Russia invaded, said Austin. “It will definitely be worth going back and having a close look."

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